Spandex—the now ubiquitous elastic apparel fiber—has exploded in popularity since its inception in the '50s, starting out as a replacement for rubber in garments—like women’s girdles—and becoming a staple in the athletic community. In fact, walk into any outdoor shop today and choose any piece of apparel with a little stretch in it. Check the label. We’d bet our boots that there’s spandex content.
As dominant as it is in the world of stretch fabrics, it’s not perfect. Spandex is also notorious for its shorter life span, slow dry time, and inability to be recycled—a frustrating dilemma for an industry that is both dependent on the prosperity of the outdoors and rife in stretchy performance fabric.
In response to the cries for a more sustainable alternative, DuPont recently created Sorona, a plant-based, equally stretchy fabric. We caught up with Renee Henze, global marketing director of DuPont Biomaterials, to talk about textile sustainability and why Sorona just might be the stretchy fabric of the future.
OK, first: Can you please explain the difference between Lycra and spandex? Or are they synonymous?
Lycra and Spandex (as well as elastrane) have the same synthetic fiber composition. Lycra is a brand name to distinguish itself from other spandex fibers.
Why is Sorona more sustainable than Lycra and spandex?
Unlike spandex, which is a polyether-polyurea copolymer, Sorona is partially plant-based and can be recycled in any normal polyester recycling stream. Its manufacturing process is also incredibly efficient, and produces significantly less greenhouse gases. Spandex breaks down quickly when exposed to heat, UV rays, chlorine, and every day wear and tear, which is why you have to replace your favorite pair of leggings more often than you would like. That's because the spandex molecule is chemical, and has rigid construction and soft construction. The soft construction allows you to stretch it and the rigid construction allows you to bring it back in.
But Sorona doesn't break down because of its zig-zag molecular structure, more commonly known as mechanical stretch. Think about someone who has really curly hair. It always bounces back. Sorona's stretch is permanent, meaning that you can stretch it and it will always recover. A lot of things can stretch, but that consistent recovery is really important.
How does it stack up performance wise?
Sorona is 37 percent Industrial Dent Corn, which isn't used for human consumption but for things such as animal feed and industrial ingredients in food and personal care products. The rest is traditional polyester. Polyester does a really good job of wicking and drying.
Sorona fiber is exceptionally soft on its own, so it doesn’t need to be woven with another fiber for softness. It's dyeable and capable of holding color without being wrapped in another colored fiber. It holds its color strongly, so yellow staining and challenges with opacity are no concern. It also dries nearly twice as fast as spandex. And like we talked about before, Sorona's stretch is mechanical, which means it maintains a high level of stretch and recovery wash after wash, wear after wear.
Is Sorona more expensive than Spandex?
Spandex, depending upon the source, is generally a bit more expensive than Sorona. However to get the same amount of stretch, you’ll generally need to use more Sorona, so the costs equals out.
Are brands adopting Sorona?
We can't disclose specific brands, but there are a lot of brands using it to replace spandex who don’t talk about it because it’s not a widely-marketed tool. There are definitely brands marketing Sorona, but they don't necessarily market it yet as a spandex replacement. For stretch use, in the U.S., Sorona can be labeled elasterell-p; in the European Union, Elastomultiester; and in Asia Pacific, polyester. My hope is that we’ll see people talk about it in that way in forthcoming seasons.
Is the hope that Sorona will eventually replace spandex and Lycra?
Absolutely. Sorona is just as stretchy as spandex. In recent years, the industry has trended toward comfort stretch, meaning everything we wear these days, from workout wear to technical outdoor gear to everyday denim to high fashion has at least a little bit of stretch in it now. It can even be used in swimsuits or yoga wear or running tights. Where Sorona can’t yet go is in what we call power stretch or super high compression, but it's only a small number of applications. Think about Spanx, the contouring leggings and briefs typically worn by women. For everything else, Sorona fits beautifully into.